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Contractor theft garners a high number of complaints

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Ted Sullivan
February 21, 2009
— After paying a contractor $36,000, Jillian Mizzen’s remodeling projects remain unfinished.

Bathrooms have no walls.


A sink is missing.


Rooms have no doors.


Floors and paint jobs remain incomplete.


“He just stopped showing up,” the 26-year-old Janesville resident said. “It’s incredibly upsetting.”


Mizzen is one of thousands of Wisconsin residents who lose money to contractors every year, officials said. An old-fashioned handshake just can’t be trusted anymore.


Contractor theft is among the top 10 complaints with the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.


“When you lose thousands of dollars, you complain,” said Glen Loyd of the state consumer protection department. “It’s so much money and there are so many ways that things can go wrong.”


People are most vulnerable to bad contractors when they have emergencies such as flooding. In Mizzen’s case, she found her home flooded and moldy after a pipe leaked.


“Last year, we had a lot of weather-related incidents, especially in southern Wisconsin, where we saw a lot of contractors coming in and doing shoddy work,” said Susan Bach of the Better Business Bureau.


Contractors can be criminally prosecuted, but the victim of contractor theft might have no recourse other than filing a lawsuit, Loyd said.


Complaints also can be filed with the Better Business Bureau and Consumer Protection Department.


“Sometimes they are very well-meaning contractors that just get caught up in personal problems,” Loyd said.


In Mizzen’s case, she inherited her home from her uncle. She was living in Madison when the toilet tank cracked, flooding the house. She later found the Janesville house with water damage.


Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, floors and walls were ruined. She hired a contractor recommended to her.


Mizzen gave the contractor down payments for each phase of work, including a 1985 Chevrolet Corvette. The job started as planned.


But the contractor never finished, Mizzen said, and sometimes she made a full payment without knowing the work wasn’t done.


“Obviously, my assumption was that he was going to complete the job,” she said.


Mizzen estimates her contractor finished $22,000 in work.


After numerous calls, the contractor refused to meet, Mizzen said. She hired an attorney, but he hasn’t been able to resolve the issue.


She also filed a report with the Rock County Sheriff’s Office, but the contractor has not been charged, according to court records.


Mizzen is now considering a lawsuit.


“Honestly, I feel like I did my best to work with him,” she said. “Ultimately, I was stuck in a position where I really had to work with him or pay somebody else, so I tried to work with him.


“This is not where I wanted this to go, but he left me with no choice.”


AVOIDING PROBLEMS


Tips to avoid problems with contractors:


-- Hire local contractors.


-- When hiring a contractor, never fall for the line: “I’m giving you a great deal because I have leftover materials.”


-- Get at least three bids for the job.


-- Learn whether the contractor is properly licensed, bonded and insured.


-- Look beyond the lowest bid when selecting a contractor.


-- Be suspicious of door-to-door solicitations.


-- Take note if the contractor asks about the required permits. A good contractor should.


-- Look to see if the contractor lists a phone number in a local directory.


-- Don’t pay the entire amount up front and don’t pay in cash.


-- Pay up to one-third, then make additional payments during the project contingent upon the completion of a defined amount of work.


-- Do not make the final payment or sign an affidavit of final release until you are satisfied with the work and have proof that the subcontractors and suppliers have been paid.


-- Do not finance through your contractor’s recommended lender.


-- Ask for the names of the contractor's recent customers and call to see if they are satisfied.


-- Contact the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, (800) 422-7128, and the Better Business Bureau, (800) 273-1002, to find out if complaints have been filed against the contractor.


-- Don't rely on oral agreements.


-- Make sure the contract contains the company name and address, a full description of the job, a detailed list of materials, a total price, a start and completion date and a statement on warranties.


-- Get lien waivers from the contractor after final payment is made. A waiver prevents a subcontractor or supplier from putting a lien on your home if the contractor doesn't pay the bills.


-- Give a written notice if you want to cancel a contract and demand return of all money and materials the contractor has not yet used on the project.


Source: The Wisconsin Better Business Bureau and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.



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